Friday, October 8, 2010

Week LondONE

Flight of the Hippogriff
The last time I sat in a plane was at such a stage of my life where my memory cells had not yet fully developed. That is the exact reason why I do not have any recollection of how it felt to get my own set of wings for the first time! Since then I got lucky and chanced upon flying in an airplane when I had won a return ticket to Goa for topping my Certificate Travel Exams, but another lucky chance of being R.C.H.R. PresidentRef.3 the following year ensured that the effect of being lucky twice got nullified. That made this nine and a half hour journey of wafting over half the world to reach my destination, my fist ever encounter with the laws of thrust and lift. No idea of all the airport jargon and stages to cross before I finally got my seat in the Jet Airways flight, I reached the airport with family, and was delightfully surprise by friends (DorrsRef.4 included. You were as good as there for me in person, so what if you couldn’t ‘apparate’ on time).

I passed successfully through the airport drill – Baggage, Boarding Pass Receipt, Immigration, Waiting-For-An-Hour, Duty-Free-Window-Shopping, Last-Final-Calls and Entering-Flight! Getting a middle seat wasn’t really a boon but a seat in the second row was. I had some lime juice and popped in a pain killer to avoid the oh-so-nerve-bursting pain in the back of the ears (my dentist had also told me to be prepared for some pain in the teeth – Aerodontalgia (now called Barodontalgia)). The first half an hour was spent looking outside the window on my right, which gave the passenger sitting near the window an impression that I was continuously staring at him, so post-take-off he rudely shut the window slide down. Hmpf!

After the few ignorant initial moments of just whiling away time, thanks to the observe-others-and-learn-technique I finally operated the Personal Entertainment Portal. Good vegetarian Paneer Makhanwala for lunch and Ragda Pattice for snacks was very well appreciated by the butterflies in my stomach and the great list of songs and movies (The Last Airbender deserves a mention, amazing effects, magical movie) were a much needed catalyst to hasten the travel time.

The first time when it finally struck me about how lonely it might get in London, was when the first meal arrived on board, I could not digest the fact I had to eat alone! It felt really depressing. (NavinRef.5, you were so right about this feeling!) Following a really long nap, I woke up over the United Kingdom and with every update about how far the destination was (and also a range of other things like air pressure outside (some exorbitantly large number), temperature outside (-90oC), speed of the plane ( thousands of miles per hour), altitude (some hundreds of metres above Mt.Everest) etcetera) my heart skipped a beat as I could finally see the manicured gardens below, the Thames, the ‘Wisteria-Lanes’ through the ‘Simpson’ clouds, I could finally see ‘LONDONThruMyEye’.

As the flight landed I remembered Mustu’sRef.6 wise words about making it to the Immigration Terminal as soon as I could. So I clubbed my hand luggage and went on a no-two-feet-on-the-ground-at-the-same-time sprint walk to the Immigration Terminal. Once I reached there I realised why Mustu had told me so, as there were serpentine queues lined up to get the Immigration Stamp on the passport from U.K.B.A.Ref.7 (I wonder if India has something like this?). Luckily for first-time International Students the queue was just q (so to say it was really short). By far the worst part of the first-flying experience was at the Baggage Collection Area! Hordes of suitcases of hordes of passengers from hordes of different flights, all at one big collection site with hordes of suitcase regurgitators (I know this is not a word, but it describes it best), vomiting suitcase after suitcase of all different sizes, shapes and types. It took me three quarters of an hour until I finally lay my hands upon three big purple-ribbon-tied suitcases. Sigh!

And as they say the best is left for the last. Dragging my trolley I reached the end of the walkway which presented a perfect scene from apney Hindi Pikchars, sons waiting to fetch parents, drivers waiting to fetch business honchos, family of twenty waiting to fetch one and one really cherished Friend – Mustu, waiting to fetch another –Me! Seeing Mustu’s face was the best feeling in the world after all the insecurities that hounded me for over a year, about how I will manage without the people I loved the most in Mumbai! Well, an answer to that was the sight of Mustu’s smiling face!

London’s Heathrow has its overload of the Colour Purple and that was a welcoming gift for me! I had my first tryst with how tech-savvy the city was when I saw Mustu pay for the car parking fees at the airport. A drive through the spectacularly neat and tidy roads of London (in a dark green Accent), a couple of detours here and there and the Oh-My-God-I’m-Finally-Here feeling was what made up my drive to No.80 Elmstead Avenue – Mustu’s House!

The Reunion
Meeting Mustu after almost 2 years was reason enough for a big smile, but more smiles awaited me as I met FarhajiRef.8 a few hours later (how I missed her warm hugs and her ‘Yashumati’ shouts). Farhaji came over that night and got along some ready-to-eat Pav Bhaji packets, to the delight of one of Mustu’s housemates, IqbalRef.9, as he had never before tasted Pav Bhaji.  It instantly felt like Home, all thanks to Mustu being who he is best at being, himself!

Cuddled in bed as I readied myself to dream I thought of how as kids we read books and see pictures of traffic signals, trees, row houses, stone building, roofs, chimneys and cobbled pavements, all drawn and painted to perfection, and we tell ourselves that it’s only perfect because it is a picture in a story book. But, in London it all looks exactly like it looked in those books. The city is simply pretty!

Nature’s Call
Next morning I woke up to the sounds of nature. The chirping of rather exotic birds from the branches of apple trees, the nibbling of squirrels on ripening pears, the fluttering of parrots and the pitter-patter of water. To my astonishment Mustu’s house had a garden in its backyard, a step away from the huge glass doors that separated the room from it. I also realised there was this it’ll-creak-if-you-move tendency in most houses in London.  With every shift, step, walk, sit, close-door, open-drawer, start-heater, stop-microwave there was a sound wave that emanated and passed by the whole house informing everyone present of what everyone was up to!

Post all the refreshing routine that governs every morning, I departed for my first ever Tube-Ride. Ah! Now where do I begin to talk about the tubes? It’s completely technologically managed. The stations are so well marked, you can never get lost. The Tube Map is complicated and I love that! There are thirteen different tube lines with different routes and colours allotted to them (Mustu’s house is on the Metropolitan Line, and its designated colour is Purple, seriously no exaggerations here!) The security is strict. The updates on the stations can be clearly heard. The travel rules are all-encompassing and most importantly are followed by everyone! The tubes are almost never late. Though there are tube strikes on occasions (I experienced one of those in the following days). The doors are automatic and so are some tube trains (DLR Line has no Train Driver!). The advertisements all over are witty and their presentation is impeccable. The Tube system is just a dot away from perfection. So meticulously planned and managed that even if they have any blockages they call it ‘Planned Disruption’. Oyster manages a bulk of their ticketing, C.B.S. manages all advertisements. The Tube service is a part of a bigger superset called T.F.L. (Travel for London) which includes Buses, Trams, Cycles (taken up by Barclays), Boats, Rails, Taxis, Minicabs, Coaches and Walking!
{For complete details of all lines, mail me}

Before I delve further, I shall illustrate to you all about the University of Westminster (henceforth referred to as UoW). In the global rankings by Webometrics, UoW stands at 854 and was started as The Royal Polytechnic Institution by Quintin HoggRef.10 in 1838. It has runs its seven schools at four campuses with over 22,000 students (including 5,000 international students). My one-year postgraduate course of MA / Msc Applied Market and Social Research comes under the School of Social Sciences and Humanities which is based at its Regent Street Campus (which by the way is the UoW’s Headquarters).

A Road Less Travelled...
On my first day as a vagabond, I walked up and down the City of Westminster – Baker Street, Great Portland Street, Regents Street to name a few. London as a city is a circle divided into different districts and each district is divided into boroughs. I met my Course Leader Derrick WrightRef.11 and visited the School Registry Office at Wells Street. Within a fraction of seconds my enrolment was processed and a brand new photo identity bar-coded swipe card furnished to me for access to all resources at the UoW. Talk about technology!

The streets of Westminster are lined with only stone buildings. Each one surpassing the other in terms of grandeur, design and history. There are some sky scrapers as well, but mostly in the main city. The administration and the local governments have brilliantly packaged this city. Each and every street at each and every corner is named; every building has its number imprinted on it. The zebra crossings are automatically managed. As and when pedestrians need to cross they press the green button on the signal and the signals turn to red signalling the cars to stop. All the bill boards and hoardings for the shops, malls, restaurants (there are a million restaurants to say the least) are aesthetically done to seamlessly merge in with the other surroundings. Historic round plaques mark important spots describing the details of which famous personalities from history lived there. Fountains, statues and expansive gardens are very easy to find and relax at. The street lights are artistically crafted, with round bouquets of ferns and flowers hanging down from them. There are maps galore at every junction and inside every building. There are designated lanes for buses, taxis and cycles. The window displays are larger than life and the malls which showcase them are even larger. Exhibition galleries, theatres and museums are dispersed throughout the city. The city could well be a Karan Johar film set sans the people in them! The best way to see the city is on foot, just walk your way on a road less travelled and discover the city through your eyes!

London is a collection of diverse races, ethnicities and cultures. Tourists, migrants, international students and citizens work together in tandem to keep the wheels of this city rolling. Every fifth face is an Asian and there are times when you will find more Non-Britishers than Britishers around you. Everyday language is rather formal and polite. Work here happens rather slowly. Each one is contained within them and mind’s their own business. When in a tube, no one will even raise an eye here or there. Everyone just does their own thing, living their own magical life. It does give them a rather self-centred semblance but when called upon, each and everyone is ready to lend a helping hand forward. It is as if each one is living in their own bubble, oblivious and nonchalant about everyone else until you prod them for anything, and once they know you have poked them, they will come forward and connect, and if you would not have made the first move do not be surprised if they’d live in their bubble forever.

My first lecture at the UoW was supposed to be held on the 28th of September 2010, but it got cancelled! This gave me another day to simply faff (I will soon apply to the authorities managing the English Dictionary to designate this as a legitimate English word) around the place. I visited all the buildings of the UoW in Central London. In doing so I passed by some jaw-dropping places - the Apple Store, Madame Tussauds Museum, Regents Park, Hamleys and the likes. Getting acquainted with the city rules was quite an interesting learning process. Every time I questioned myself about something, someone around me would do something that would answer that something question of mine! Like when walking on the footpaths if I wondered when and how was I supposed to cross here, because the driving rules are very strict, I noticed how people would wait at the signals and press those yellow buttons which would make the signal turn red. On another occasion while travelling in the tubes I wondered if I could use my-walking-laws on the escalators rather than waiting for it to take me up and down at its own sluggish pace. And while I wondered, a stream of people at jet speed would get onto the escalator and walk all over it, but they stuck to the left side of the escalator. Thus, it dawned upon me that the slow coaches can wait on the right while the rapids could sprint away from the left, instead of doing what I was doing - waiting on the left like a slow coach!

The Sorcerer’s Stone
It was my third day in London and how could I stay any longer without meeting the third person from the ‘Super-Trio’ that made up Farha, Mustu and ParasRef.12. Meeting Paras taught me another important London-Lesson – places in London always sound the same but are actually not the same! I was supposed to meet him at West Hampstead station but I successfully fell into the Random-Nomenclature-Trap and got muddled up between Hampstead (Northern Line, black), West Hampstead (Metropolitan Line, purple), Hampstead Heath (London Overground, double orange) and West Ham (District Line, dark green and Hammersmith and City Line, pink (Yes, there are major tube stations which are converging points for more than one tube line)) Yet again, the Tube Map came to my rescue and I finally went all smiles once again as this bought my Harry-Potter-Book-One-Fantasy to life. I finally lay my hands on the elixir of life. I met Paras – The Sorcerer’s Stone!

UoW has its Student Accommodation Services running at five different buildings. The one for postgraduate students is called by the name of Wigram House (closest tube station – Victoria on the Victoria Line,blue). PrachiRef.13, RishituRef.14 and DiveshRef.15 had each got themselves a Small Room here to stay. The building completely made in red stone was in an area called AshleyRef.16 Gardens (but as expected there were no gardens around). Paras brought me here to try and get me a room as well. The waiting room on the ground floor became an H.R. College Common Room. Prachi, Divesh, Rishitu, Paras, DhruvRef.17 and myself all packed into the cuddly sofas, pool table by the side enjoyed the evening updating each other on our lives. After crunching under the weight of the baby elephant on my back (read: my bag) I ended the day at Wembley Park (where Paras and Farha stay with their housemate EmilyRef.18) with some lip smacking ready-to-cook Indian dinner.

A Wednesday
Finally came the middle of the week, the longest day (if you go by spelling) – ‘(A) Wednesday’! I woke up to a different London, a weeping London. Yes, it was pouring! Within three days of being in this city I realised that the weather Gods here were terminally demented and would unleash upon Londoners a variety of climatic conditions and weather patterns in a short span of time. Umbrella in hand I left for the UoW’s New Cavendish Street Campus. I had to make a couple of inquiries and finish some paperwork with regards to my Scholarship.

There is this peculiarity about change. When change happens and you are adapting to a new way of life there is this eagerness and excitement. This is because with every grain of sand that trickles down in an hour glass in a dungeon deep beneath the Pyramids, life brings you closer to one of those numerous ‘oh-this-is-going-to-my-first-time’ moments. And this long day made me experience that same excitement as I entered for my first lecture at the University of Westminster (I know I mentioned before that henceforth I shall refer to it as UoW, but this is a huge moment and writing it out in full brings across the magnitude of the situation, I was really really excited)!

Lecturer – Prof. Malcom HoggRef.17
Time – 18:00 to 21:00
Location – Regent Street Room No. 154
Module – 1MSR7A1 Applied Social and Market Research in Context

I reached the University early (stop giving me that shocked look!). Yes, I reached early and rushed up to the room. From the peep-in window I saw unlikely candidates for students. Individuals dressed in tie-coats, long jackets, bags by their chairs, office files resting on their desks; thus, thinking it’s the wrong class I rushed back down to the foyer to inquire with the receptionist if he was aware of a change of room. He retorted, ordering me to look it up properly as there were no change of rooms. I re-rushed to that same room and read the sign on its door above the peep-in window, it read Room No. 154. Knowing at the back of my mind that this is still the wrong room and knowing that I will be inviting uncalled embarrassment for barging into a random lecture, I unlocked the door knob and stepped inside. Some faces turned, one smiling one (Malcolm’s) and the back of my mind wrapped in embarrassment was pulverized into nothingness; it was indeed my class, it was the correct room.

We kicked-off with a brief introduction on all of us, followed by a PPT presentation and some class activities related to the topic for the day. It was a refreshing change from the classrooms in which we study back in India. The methods applied, the teaching tools, the format of the course, the syllabus, the student-mix and the professors.

THfreshURSDAY - The World is Flat ...Or is it?
The fourth day of the week arrived (for everyone whose wondering, India adopted the Indian Standard IS 7900:2001 which states that Monday is the first day of the week and not Sunday as it was considered in ancient India!).  The day started off with bus-rides all across central London, and I landed up at Edgware Road (once again the nomenclature played truant; Edgware and Edgware Road are two different places). I was on a hunt to find the best bank in London, which would give me the best services for a basic student account. Opening a bank account here is as easy as popping peanuts into your mouth! If you follow all the steps you should have everything in place within a week. The procedure is full proof and it is strict. Banks apparently have a centralised system which track credit defaulters (as a measure to reduce risk) back to years and years in the past on the basis of their client’s addresses. So in case someone who stayed at a place before you, had a tainted track record with handling money, he/she would leave a bit of their taint on you, if you happened to have moved into a defaulting a place of stay with a defaulting history. This is another parameter people judge while renting/purchasing property – what is its credit history.

The UoW commences its academic year with an International Student’s Welcome Week and I had made it in time to attend the last event of that celebrated week – The Fresher’s Fair. The word ‘fresher’ here applies to all ‘first’ year students. No, not in that sense of the word ‘first’, in the other sense of the word ‘first’. ‘First’, implying all students who have entered the university for the first time ever, irrespective of the course they have applied to or year they are studying in. The Fresher’s Fair was charged with energy and stuffed with stalls put up by different student’s associations and societies. So much information bombarded about very interesting types of clubs and societies. The UoW Student’s Union is the main body under which exist around 100 societies. I took a fancy to the Chaplaincy Service (only because they were going to organise a Christmas Choir (Anglican alternative spelling for ‘choir’ is ‘quire’) and the UoW Hindu Society (they introduced themselves with ‘Pranam’). It felt like the world had arrived there. It was overwhelming to see the young blood of our international diversity pooled into one place. Bumping into every quarlternate (another invented-word awaiting its legitimacy, it means ‘every fourth’) person with that baby elephant on my back and two free-bags with palm full of freebies and flyers in either hand I trotted out of this globe onto the erstwhile flat earth up on the foyer.

With every consecutive wave washing the shores of the beaches in Hawaii, the day progressed further and it was time for another lecture (second at the UoW, first for that Module).

Lecturer – Prof. Mia LorenzRef.18
Time – 17:30 to 20:30
Location – Regent Street Room No. 156
Module – 1MSR7A3 Introduction to Qualitative and Quantitative Research
Topic – Introduction to the Module: Research Concepts & the
Research Process

The same set of classmates assembled (with one new entrant) but the lecture was a tangent from the one held on the previous day. We discussed, deliberated and adopted Class Rules and Regulations*, introduced ourselves once again discussed the module we would be learning over the course of the next twelve weeks. Winter was soon approaching but with every passing lecture the ice between all of us started to melt! No winter can block this form of social warmth.

Global Tutelage (erstwhile Village)
As I mentioned the basic dynamics of my University earlier (go back to the header UoW), I shall now introduce you to the format of how this course runs. The course has seven Modules.  Assessment for each module happens only through Coursework (that implies that there are no written examinations). Passing each module bestows you with Credits. The total credits acquired at the end of the year reveres you with Master’s Degree. Passing percentages for each module are varied depending on the coursework. The annual study year is divided into two semesters of twelve weeks each. Out of the twelve weeks, ten weeks are Teaching Weeks and two are Guided Independent Study (GIS) Weeks (basically self-study weeks). In the first semester there are three modules and in the second semester there are four modules. And finally above all of this, UoW offers this course in three formats – Full-Time (One Year-All 7 Modules), Part-Time (Two Years – 7 Modules spread across the two years) and Diploma (Select Modules for securing qualifications with the Market Research Society (MRS)).  Since I was a Full-Time student, out of the three modules I was studying in the first semester, two modules had the same set of people (the new Full-Time, Diploma and Part-Time students), one module had another set of students (the new Full-Time with last year’s Part-Time students). The course was an applied course, and this ensured that the curriculum was heavy on the practicality side rather than the theoretical side. It was meant to aid you to learn and understand the research industry peepli style – Live and in action!

Education here is a continuing concept. The notion we have on the other side of the world is of five years of graduation and then immediately completing a Master’s. Here people take up further education and do their Master’s at any time post graduation, in any subject they wish to and there is no limit on the number of Master’s you can do. Another advantage is that a Master’s degree here takes one year to complete rather than two years, which is prevalent in other parts of the world.

This justified the mix of individuals who I saw across the glass before my first lecture. At the end of that lecture, sitting on the other end of that glass amongst them, I realized why those people from all walks of life were a part of the course. Some who were fresh out of their graduation, others who were deep into their work-life and wanted to learn more about the industry they were working in (Research in this case), some who had branched out to diversify the knowledge they had and had taken up the course to learn a totally new subject while others who wished to get their membership with the MRS.

Bit by bit the four days hauled up the weight of the upcoming heavy weights – Friday, Saturday and Monday and finally the weekend arrived with a thud! Everyday heading back home to Mustu’s home I kept wondering how Mustu would have managed all alone, all by himself, with no ‘Mustu’ there to receive him at the airport and no No.80 Elmstead Avenue to call home for his initial days here in London. I felt happy, simple happy, at the fact that good old friends from good old septuagenarian Independent India where there all around. The butterfly in me hadn’t curiously ended up like Benjamin Button but had progressed to another level of Metamorphosis. The start of which was cracking the cocoon of the people from my past (who are remembered every time my (London) Eye blinks) and emerge to cross paths at the gates of future with those who were meant to at the hands of Destiny.

The first museum I visited in London was Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, (it’s not a grammatical error, the name of the museum has an exclamation mark after it, so the coma after it is justified, just clarifying!) accompanied by an old school friend, Pavan DaswaniRef.19. Meeting him after three years was reason enough for Nostalgia to catwalk up on the ramp of my memory what followed were three hours of the best runway show I’ve seen, Nostalgia looked beautiful! From funny instances from the heydays to trying to give the names of the teachers a face as well, it was surprising what Nostalgia could do. He treated me to the largest portion of French fries that I have ever eaten, sprinkled liberally with the infamous Peri Peri masala whose origins are disputed by Portugal, Spain and South Africa. Nando’s (at Euston Square, Brunswick, mind you not Euston that is another place) specialises in these Peri Peri dishes and is quite a haven for the one’s craving a strong spicy dollop of taste on their tongues. The museum visit that followed the lunch was nothing out of the world, but reading about the artefacts, the biography of Robert Ripley (travelled to 200 countries, I suppose his passport was as thick as a novel by the end) and the Mirror Maze (the best I’ve been too) were the highlights.

In the coming weeks – The End of Week One (Meeting Aditi...Gandhi Jayanti in London...Westfield Shopping Mall & Dinner at Wembley Park)


  1. Cant find good enough words... so just going to say- Magical!!!
    So much purple, so much madness, such awesome names of streets, Mustu's address having an 8!, farhaJI, illustrations from books coming to life, something to observe, know and learn at every moment - Ofcourse it feels like home to you, Mr. Jain!
    As always loved ur style of writing. Cant wait for week 2!
    P.s - I love being mentioned in every first article u write :P ;).
    Missing you, Dorrs

  2. Ha ha ha... Thaneks Dorrs! I know the layout is just wow... And I don't know if you noticed but when you get onto the Blog for the first few seconds till it's loading there is this moment in a split second before the background comes and then the text comes on it... In that split second the stars glow an d shine and subside as soon the the text comes on... It's damn quick but it looks wowowow!

    Yaa... The places here are crazy! I kne it that you would notice that and I had backspaced details about Mustu's house address but the I said to myself no there are some who will like it and relate to it!

    Ha ha ha.. Yes, Ms. Laungani it does feel like home! (But then again not exaclty cause everyone from Mumbai isn't here yaa... Family...Friends!)

    P.S.: Technically it's the second post but so what... Yaay!

    Miss you too...